Nomadland, which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, firmly establishes Chloé Zhao as one of the best directors working today. Not that this declaration couldn’t be seen coming with her last film, 2017’s highly acclaimed The Rider. But Nomadland is just one of those types of movies that announces a director’s presence with authority. It’s the type of movie that changes everything for an up and coming director. At this point, it would be an absolute shock if it isn’t somehow nominated for Best Picture.
There’s a scene in Nomadland so beautiful I gasped as it whisked my brain to some of Terrence Malick’s early work, Badlands and Day of Heaven. The very next scene portrays Fern (Frances McDormand) wearing a shirt that says “Badlands Recreational Vehicle Park.” So maybe the kind of imagery Zhao is displaying isn’t lost on her. Maybe it’s a coincidence. But I do think a pretty good argument could be made that the types of movies Zhao is making right now is a lot closer to early Malick than what we are seeing from current Malick. In that Zhao is a master of filming these beautiful landscapes and nature and weaving into the plot of her tale of America in, at least what looks like, effortlessly. Nomadland will almost physically take you places. It’s a beautiful, absolutely gorgeous motion picture.
Set in 2012 in northern Nevada, a local mine goes out of business that puts scores of people out of work. Fern (the aforementioned McDormand), whose husband has recently passed away, works odd jobs here and there, including for Amazon. But when her contract comes there comes to an end, there aren’t any jobs left in the area so she hits the road in her makeshift van/RV looking for work and, well, whatever.
She meets up with a commune of some sort. Well, less a commune (at least, there’s no organized way of living and people come and go pretty frequently) and more just a group of drifters who either aren’t really sure what they’re supposed to be doing in this country anymore, or the country has simply left them behind. Left them for dead. And instead of just rolling over and giving up, at least they have the scenery to look at. At least they can say they are doing something before it’s time to go – a certainty that’s addressed by the travelers as, “See you down the road.”
There are no politics in this movie, at least not any politics that are mentioned, even though a lot of these people find themselves in this situation because their government failed them. But growing up in Missouri, I knew a lot of people like the people portrayed in this movie. I have family like the people portrayed in this movie. And I have no doubt who they will be voting for this November. And these aren’t the screaming crazy people we see on television. These are the people who think the current president cares about them and are also too proud to take what they perceive as a handout, even though we’ve all paid into what’s supposed to be a safety net of a system for most of our lives.
Fern makes her way from landscape to landscape. We see the desert morph into the badlands. We see mountains transform into forests. She’s a caring person who is always quick to share whatever she may have from stop to stop, but more than anything she just wants to keep moving.
There’s something very solitary about Frances McDormand’s performance, even though there are plenty of other people in the movie. Fern meets people and sometimes we see them again. Sometimes we don’t. that’s just the way it goes with this particular lifestyle. But even the people she gets closest to don’t seem particularly permanent. Later in the film we learn more of her motivations and each one is heartbreaking. Why she feels she needs to keep moving, never letting anyone get too close. It’s a stunning performance from McDormand, so much so that it’s difficult to not want to declare something hyperbolic like this is her best performance. But then I remember I feel like that after a lot of Francis McDormand movies. But there’s something special about this one. It’s like she’s the only person in the movie. But she’s not. David Strathairn is in this movie and is fantastic. But it’s almost like Fern is on a boat by herself. It’s her own All Is Lost, but instead of at sea, she’s floating along aimlessly in America, beside so many others just like her.
Chloé Zhao’s next film is Marvel’s Eternals, which was mostly finished before the pandemic hit. I have no doubt it will be a stunning piece of science fiction. And I know Kevin Feige is smart enough to use Zhao’s talents and not hide her unique voice behind CGI and explosions. Still, after The Rider and now Nomadland, no one quite gets this side of America like Zhao does. And I am curious how that will translate to immortal beings made by aliens. Then again, no one is better than Zhao than presenting Americans as strangers in their own land. So, immortal beings that resemble actual aliens might just be secondhand at this point.
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